Portrait of the Week #12: Nishiwaki Junzaburo

Nishiwaki Junzaburo (1894 – 1982)

Nishiwaki was a prolific poet; sixteen major books of poems were published in his lifetime. They were highly acclaimed and some of them were awarded prestigious literary prizes. In 1957 he was officially nominated to the Swedish Academy as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for literature through the indirect recommendation of Ezra Pound.

Although Nishiwaki is remembered as arguably the greatest twentieth-century poet in Japan, he was also a well-known scholar, teacher and translator. He became a professor of English at Keio University in 1926 at the age of thirty-three, teaching mainly English literature, Old and Middle English, and linguistics, until he retired from the post in 1962. Nishiwaki served for three years as dean of the faculty of literature at Keio and published scholarly books on English writers from William Langland to T.S. Eliot as wellas literary criticism and essays. His students included many who were later to become prominent poets, writers, journalists, scholars and businessmen. When the Japanese Society for English Literature was founded in 1929, Nishiwaki read a paper at its first conference entitled ‘English Classicism.’ His translations include Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and poems by James Joyce. In his later years he was honoured by being elected to the Science Council of Japan, inducted into the Academy of Art, recommended as an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Science, and finally awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure.

Almost all poets and writers in modern Japan have been attracted  to the West in one way or the other. However, none was more attracted to Western literature than Nishiwaki. Froma very early age he determined to read, speak and write English as well as a native English speaker. He believed that it was not possible to become an international writer if you wrote in Japanese. When he first started writing poetry, he chose to write in English and French and it was only years later that he began to write poems in Japanese. When he first started writing poetry, he chose to write in English and French and it was only years later that he began to write poems in Japanese, first as translations of his own French poems. Until his mid-thirties, he had hardly read any Japanese books apart from a small number of poems, and had rarely published anything in Japanese.

In language, literature and art the West had been of paramount importance to him. He had read almost solely Western literature, whenever possible in Western languages, and appreciated only Western art. He had also tried hard to make himself look more Western than Westerners and speak and write their languages better than they did. Nishiwaki had been a perfectionist when it came to learning Western languages. Undeniably he had disliked Japan and the East. On being asked once by Fukuda Rikutaro, a professor of English literature, about his attitude toward Japan in his youth, he spat out: ‘I loathed everything about Japan, really everything. I also loathed China as well.’ All of this, however, began to change after he came back to Europe in 1925 and he started writing poems and literary criticism in Japanese. Writing in Japanese may have worked as some form of therapy for his identity problem. The moment he began to publish in Japanese, recognition, something which he had never experienced in England, came his way. Whatever he wrote was received with praise and admiration and his students were mesmerized by his erudition and knowledge of European literature. The 1930s, which were dominated by the surge of militarism and fanatical nationalism, was not the best time for a writer and scholar to be involved in Western culture. From then on Nishiwaki began nostalgically to lean towards Japanese literary and cultural traditions.

Nishiwaki’s poetic and critical achievements in his maturity would not, however, have been possible without his total immersion in English language and literature and his experiences during his three years in England. Most of his later poems employ Japanese motifs, but their language, diction, and style are original and have no exact precedents in traditional and modern Japanese poetry. These characteristics clearly originated from those twenty years when Nishiwaki tried to make himself into an Englishman and went through a period of both internal and external exile from his country.

This is an extract from a biography by Norimasa Morita. The full biographies for each Portrait of the Week are contained in the Japan Society series Biographical Portraits (Vols. I – VIII). If you would like to purchase any of these volumes, they can be found online in the Japan Society Shop, with a special discount for members.

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